… the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb which carries the same meaning that is already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what–these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur, ironically, in proportion to education and rank.

Zinsser, W. (2006). On writing well: The classic guide to writing nonfiction. New York: HarperCollins.

As someone who teaches students to write academic papers for a living, I’m often surprised by the bewilderment with which craft guides approach the origins of academese. Theories abound–everything from Pinker’s “curse of knowledge”–the idea that academics forget how it feels not to know something to the idea from The Walrus (below)–that academics write convoluted prose because they want “to be taken seriously.”

However, for anyone teaching students to do academic work, the mystery of why academics write prose that isn’t fit for bathroom stalls comes shrouded in clearest crystal. The problem stems from the fear of being labeled that superlative appellation of academic ignominy–a plagiarist. 😱

It’s no secret that students, especially international students who write in their L2 (i.e. “second language,” for people who don’t speak linguistic dork-speech), cut corners on their research papers–corners that too often meander into the category of plagiarism. As a result, educators admonish, threaten, upbraid, and (sometimes) yell at students who don’t paraphrase. And while the skill of paraphrasing bestows a number of authorial benefits, hyper-vigilant paraphrasing promotes the variety of bad writing known as academese by means of several well-worn directives (peer-reviewed, of course).

1. Change all the major words of the original text

The first rule of paraphrasing violates the first rule of good writing. If we assume the original writer to be a competent one, the words he used might be the best possible choices. Nevertheless, academic writing teachers tell students, “Take all of those meticulously tailored nouns and verbs that mean precisely what the writer intended and exchange them for words that mean something approximate.”

I’m not saying there aren’t situations in which it’s possible to find a perfect synonym for a word, but it certainly isn’t the rule.

2. Change the structure of the sentence

This piece of advice would be less egregious–given we lived in a world in which every student understood that sentence structure means grammar–and academic students understood grammar–and if even professors knew how to teach students techniques other than bungling the passive voice …

Of course, none of that is the case. Few people other than linguists understand grammar well enough to actually carry out this maxim with anything that approaches finesse.

(Yes, I’m including English/Lit. majors in this statement, most of whom spent–what?–one?–maybe two semesters in an actual grammar class? Because naturally the intricacies of research-paper writing in the 21st century are best learned writing book reports on 19th century British literature.) 🙄

But I digress.

Each semester when I get to the chapter on paraphrasing, I ask my students what “change the structure” means, and invariably several of them tell me it means to change the active voice to passive and vice versa. The rest of the students have no idea what it means.

In truth, when my own graduate professors in the TESOL program discussed paraphrasing, they told the class to change active sentences to passive … and things like that … things that for some reason we never got around to discussing …

This is a travesty.

The problem? (Or problems, rather.)

  1. Every style guide, including the sixth edition of the American Psychological Association, recommends you use the passive voice only where it’s necessary, and that by and large, writers should prefer the active voice.
  2. The order in which the reader encounters information is not irrelevant. Irrespective of the passive voice, writers present information in a specific order for reasons–reasons, as in, you know, things that kind of matter. It’s as though the notion that writers might introduce information in a specific order never crossed the academic mind. Steven Pinker wrote the following paragraph on how the passive voice serves this purpose in his style guide, The Sense of Style:

… the reader’s attention usually starts out on the entity named by the subject of the sentence. Actives and passives differ in which character gets to be the subject, and hence which starts out in the reader’s mental spotlight. An active construction trains the reader’s gaze on someone who is doing something: See that lady with the shopping bag? She’s pelting a mime with zucchini. The passive trains the reader’s gaze on someone who’s having something done to him: See that mime? He’s being pelted with zucchini by the lady with the shopping bag. Using the wrong voice can make the reader crane back and forth like a spectator at a tennis match: See that lady with the shopping bag? A mime is being pelted with zucchini by her.

Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style : the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. New York, New York: Viking.

3. Change the form of the words

Sometimes an enterprising student figures out that rather than find a near synonym, he can change the form of the word, 😀 from a noun, 😐 into a verb, :/ with one of those little endings, 😦 that he memorized for the GRE! 🤢

This provides the peripheral advantage that it changes the structure of the sentence–by adding another verb! 🤮

Helen Sword introduces the horrors of the zombie noun in this Ted-Ed video:

4. If you can’t find a direct synonym, use a phrase

Another ramification of less precise words is that the general terms often require modifiers,
thereby communicating less meaning with more words (because that’s surely going to jazz up your style). For example, if one substitutes the word “virus” for “influenza,” he will need modifiers, as in “the virus that causes the flu.” The substitution requires an adjective clause to accomplish the meaning of the original. The same holds true for verbs. Substituting “said” for “shouted,” requires an adverb, as in “said loudly,” or worse “said at the top of his voice.” Such verbose writing impels dictum’s such as the one by Stephen King, in the tweet above.

In sum

I’m not arguing that writers shouldn’t paraphrase or that presenting someone else’s work should be acceptable, but maybe we’ve pushed the principle beyond the threshold of positive yield. Does anyone really think you’re passing an idea off as your own when they see a parenthetical name and date at the end of the sentence? Does it matter if you didn’t change every single word so long as you cite your sources thoroughly and insert in-text citations?

Has the imperative to change all of the original text drifted from its original justification into the realm of self-gratifying dogma that hinders, rather than improves, the message?

Just think, the cure for cancer might be buried in some travesty of English prose that no researcher deems worth the pain of reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s